We live in very fortunate times where we don’t have to face the plagues that previous generations of human civilisations had to face. History records terrible plagues: a plague in 6th century carried off 13% of the world’s population (reckoned to be about 50 million people); in 14th century the black death carried off between 30-60% of the people in Europe at that time, and worldwide some 100 million lost their lives. It is reckoned that the number of people didn’t recover until the 17th century.
While saying that we don’t have to face it, what it is also true is that many other countries and continents today have to face that reality of great pandemics that go unchecked: typhus, smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, leprosy, yellow fever. Like generations before us they don’t have the medicines or the understanding of how the illnesses work to combat them.
Although we don’t have to live with that fear, because of modern medicines, it is not long ago that some of these illness, like measles and tuberculosis, were rampant here, fearful to us, and which many of our own family members in the past would have contracted.
Of course there are modern plagues. Aids is a modern day plague which still runs rampant in many countries. Although not a plague in the strict medical sense, drug addiction is the plague of modern times too. It decimates families, people turn into the walking dead. It takes family members, young and old, and moves through communities unchecked. All the bar charts sow rises in addiction rates and in deaths from overdoses. It is the fear of every parent that their young people will fall foul of this modern scourge.
Today at Mass we hear about Moses and the people of Israel. These people knew the danger of plagues. While in Egypt we hear of the 10 plagues that they experienced which devastated the land, but they were protected from. In this passage we hear Moses recount how God protected the people while in Egypt, from the plagues, but also in this desert when they were hungry and thirsty and tired.
God is pictured in the scriptures in this way – as the God who opens wide his hand and provides for the needs of his people. In days of storms he gives them shelter, in days when they are hungry he feeds them, in times when they are thirsty he gives them drink, in times when they are alone he comforts them, in moments when they don’t know where to go, he points the way.
It’s in this vein that we understand this feast and the mystery of the Eucharist, as a day which reminds us of the protection of God.
It is the simplest of things, bread and wine, and yet in holds out the deepest yearning of the human heart, namely union with God, the protection and safeguarding of God, promised to those who receive it. And it promises everything to those who receive it - God with them, God in their heart, God in their journey, God in their lives. It promises to change our lives here on earth, it promises us that we can touch God, that we can know God, that God can be in us and it promises us not just a life here, but also an eternal life.
How could this, the simplest of food, come to mean so much? The bread and wine which the Israelites ate before the escaped from Egypt would become the Passover meal. The bread and wine which our Lord ate with his disciples in the last Supper would become the Mass and the Holy Eucharist. This simplest of foods, the plainest of meals, contains the greatest of promises, God who holds out his hand, opens his hand to us will provide for all our needs for all who take this food in memory of his beloved son
But the bread that we receive in the Eucharist is also God’s sign of a new world and a new kingdom. It is bread broken for a new world, to bring hope and the promise of God’s protection into the world.
For those who receive this great mystery, it is their task in life to make present this new world. It is their task to struggle with pestilence and plague, hunger & famine, it is their task to stick up for justice, it is their role to advocate for the poor, it is their task to feed the hungry, to give shelter to the homeless and to clothe the naked. it is their task to create this new world.
Those that receive the Eucharist are not expected to return to their seats and simply say a prayer and do no more. They are not expected to return to their lives unchanged. For those who receive the Eucharist, they are expected to wash the feet of others. Its not by coincidence that in St John’s Gospel that he misses out the words of institution and says that Jesus washes the feet of his disciple at the last supper. The connection between what he does at the last supper and what he says is inseparable.
Plague and pestilence, hunger and homelessness and landlessness is the lot of the many rather than the few. The world is constructed that the few are overfed while the many go to bed hungry. While the many suffer we spend a disgraceful amount on weapons of war, that are designed to kill and maim.
The world waits to be made new. The Eucharist is a sign if that new world, people sat down to eat at this meal. People taught the new commandment and living the new commandment. Those that receive the Eucharist believe in a new world and must see themselves as agents of that change. The Eucharist is meant to be a sign of hope given to us by God. Bread broken for a new world.